iA Writer or Ulysses?

I’ve used Ulysses for years now and on the whole, I’ve been a happy bunny.

I don’t know about you, but any software that requires payment on a recurring basis is on thin ice with me. Subscriptions irk me. Each and every one needs to convince me at least once a year that it’s earning its keep – it’s increasingly rare for me to keep software that I can’t pay once for. As things stand, it’s a list of just one, but more on that some other time.

Anyhow, the renewal date was in sight, so Ulysses was under scrutiny. I had few complaints, so I was looking for something similar but without the bottomless bill.

Things I love about Ulysses.

  • The interface is clean and minimal and the software does a decent job of keeping the feature set light but relevant. There is little that’s distracting; and for me, that’s a requirement.
  • Syncing across devices works well, using Dropbox or iCloud in my case.
  • The in-built writing tools are good. Word counts, setting targets for yourself and monitoring progress, grammar and style checking – they’re all there. Over time, I found myself using most of them less and less, but still, nice to have.
  • The export to WordPress and Medium works well. Simple to set up and a real timesaver when it’s time to hit that publish button.

Things I don’t like about Ulysses.

  • As mentioned, I just don’t like the subscription model. As far as those go though, it’s not jaw-droppingly expensive. You do get apps for your phone and Mac included in the one price. But, the simple facts is that you could end up spending hundreds on what is essentially a simple writing app.
  • The file structure is weird. The way my files are organised seems overly complex and it’s not straightforward. It may be something to do with how I have everything set up, but I find myself wasting time trying to find my writing, or moving things from one place to another. Ulysses has a ‘smart folders’ type system that uses tags. There is a lot of flexibility, but I don’t care, I just want to write.

iA Writer is similar to Ulysses in a lot of ways. It covers much of the same ground, but there are key differences.

Things I love about iA Writer.

  • It has a better interface. iA Writer takes the clean, minimal workspace to a whole new level and its a wonderful writing experience. There is nothing that gets in the way of me getting my thoughts down. It’s a real pleasure to use.
  • It has less features. I know, but this is a pro for me. Yes, Ulysses does more, but none of those things are important to me. The essentials are there after all, grammar and style checking, word counts if you need them – but that’s about it.
  • oh, and you do get those super-convenient export capabilities, which work as well as they do in Ulysses.

Things I REALLY love about iA Writer.

There are a few things that, for me, set iA Writer apart.

Firstly, the use of plain text files. I’m a plain text guy and I use Markdown as much as I can. iA Writer allows me to save my files as Obsidian-friendly .md files. This has been a game changer for me and is directly linked to the other thing I love about iA Writer – the file management arrangements.

Let me explain (and apologies if this bit doesn’t make too much sense. If you use Obsidian, it will).

iA Writer files are plain text files. Which means that they can be opened by other software. It means that I can add my Obsidian Vault as an external folder in iA Writer. Everything syncs seamlessly over iCloud and I have a complete back-up on my laptop. For those of you that are interested in this subject and want to know more, check out this handy article by Martin Sketchley about how to use iA Writer with Obsidian.

I love how when I’ve published something from iA Writer on my blog, or on Medium, I just add a couple of tags and drag the file into my Obsidian vault, where it stays – elegantly archived and fully searchable within Obsidian.

iA Writer acts like an editing interface for plain text files. It doesn’t mess around with those files, or force you to convert or store them in another format. All the files can be used by any plain text editor (like Obsidian) and it’s satisfying to know that I have both a bullet-proof, and a future-proof way of storing and managing all my writing.

Things I don’t like about iA Writer.

Honestly, I’m struggling here. It could be considered expensive for what it is. You need to buy apps for different devices separately. It doesn’t affect me as I write exclusively on my laptop (I never used the iOS app on Ulysses). For me, iA Writer is exceptionally good value for money. Like I said, I’m struggling here.

You probably know which one I like best by now….

Yeah, Ulysses has been cancelled. The apps have all been deleted, even though they have several months left to run before the subscription renews. I downloaded the two week free trial for iA Writer and bought the software after three days. It was the easiest app buying decision I’ve made in a while.

It’s not just about saving money either. Buying software outright means that I don’t have to deal with incremental ‘improvements’. In my experience, these are disruptive – requiring me to learn something new, or make changes to how I was doing things before.

The bottom line.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first moved over to Ulysses after writing in word-processing programs, it was a revelation. It’s still a great option – but iA Writer is better.

For me, it’s the way it plays so nicely with plain text files, meaning it sits neatly within my current workflow. If you’re a plain text zealot, then iA Writer is a no-brainer.

If Ulysses dropped the subscription and it cost £1 to buy outright – I still wouldn’t move back. iA Writer is close to perfect for me. Check out the free trial, it may be just what you didn’t know you needed too.